Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has made dominating public schools a signature issue in his efforts to appeal to his political base, with the help of school-focused groups funded by dark money donors.
DeSantis has appointed far right activists with ties to dark money groups to fill the state’s Board of Education, which wields significant power over the state’s K-12 schools, including the power to dictate educational standards. These appointments, however, have garnered less media attention than DeSantis’s takeover of Florida’s New College, which included appointing Christopher Rufo, the architect of the recent manufactured outrage over supposed “critical race theory” in public schools and an employee of the dark money Manhattan Institute. That new board has already fired the college’s president, replaced its board president with a DeSantis appointee, and done away with its diversity initiatives.
The state’s Board of Education had been embroiled in controversy even before the new appointments. In 2021, it sanctioned eight school districts over mask mandates (forcing some to seek supplemental federal funding). The same year, the board also banned the truthful teaching of history in schools through a dictate policing what teachers can address in the classroom after DeSantis personally advocated for the measure at a board meeting. As right-wing groups have banned books about Black and LGBTQ+ experiences across the country, DeSantis’s board also enforced policies that resulted in empty bookshelves across the state while schools navigated the new regulations.
Other board actions included approving an amendment allowing teachers to be disciplined for discussing sexual orientation or gender identity before 3rd grade, which could effectively mean denying the existence of same-sex parents of some kids. The board also introduced jingoistic academic standards to the social studies curriculum and passed an expansion of DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” law — a ban on discussions of sexual or gender identity that was originally limited to grades K-3 — to encompass all K-12 public school students.
This new board is composed entirely of DeSantis appointees, three of whom DeSantis announced at the end of March. Of these three, one formerly lobbied for a school privatization firm and another heads two organizations advocating for milquetoast “solutions” to gun massacres at schools that do not involve gun control. Two other DeSantis appointees, Esther Byrd and Grazie Pozo Christie — who have already sat on the board for a year without being confirmed by the state Senate — were recommended for confirmation by the GOP-controlled Senate Committee on K-12 Education in early April without debate. Under GOP domination, the state Senate is expected to confirm the recommended appointees.
The lack of discussion prevented the public from learning more, not only about the extreme positions of Byrd and Pozo Christie, but also about their ties to the dark money groups Moms for Liberty, the Catholic Association, and Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, all of which have pushed right-wing policies in schools and elsewhere.
DeSantis’s Ties to “Moms for Liberty”
DeSantis appointee Esther Byrd, whose husband is former Florida State Rep. and current Secretary of State Cory Bird, has received local media attention for her far right politics, including her adherence to the extremist QAnon conspiracy theory, her defense of the violent extremist group that calls itself the “Proud Boys,” and her support for January 6 insurrectionists.
She is also a member of Moms for Liberty, a far right group that has demanded book bans and attacked local school boards and libraries across the country over the last two years.
It is no secret that Moms for Liberty (MFL) has close ties with DeSantis. In February 2023, he appointed Moms for Liberty co-creator Bridget Ziegler to the Disney oversight board. She also helps train far right school board candidates for the Leadership Institute, which has trained extremists like discredited right-wing video provocateur James O’Keefe. MFL members have also spoken at at least two DeSantis press conferences in 2022 on banning “wokeness” in schools and corporations.
Emails uncovered in a public records request by True North Research demonstrate that MFL was influential to the DeSantis administration and its policies as early as June 2021, just six months after the group was launched.
On June 30, 2021, MFL co-creator Tina Descovich sat in on a high-level call with the Florida Department of Education and state senate staffers regarding COVID-19 health policies in schools, even though Florida voters had rejected her bid to remain on the Brevard County School Board in 2020. In a follow-up email, DeSantis’s deputy chief of staff reiterated that the DeSantis administration would “probably … put you [Moms for Liberty] to work on implementation” and directed a government employee to “help ensure Moms for Liberty are involved in the implementation” of HB 241, the so-called parents bill of rights signed by DeSantis that same day.
Another MFL co-founder, Tiffany Justice, reached out to Governor DeSantis’s office in June 2021 to share the group’s proposed anti-vaccine and anti-masking legislation. A month later, DeSantis issued an executive order on “parental rights” and masking in a press conference where an MFL representative was invited to speak.
Additionally, the DeSantis administration has used MFL to stack its events with right-wing moms. MFL provided the administration with attendee lists for state First Lady Casey DeSantis’s August 2021 “back to school” conversation, Ron DeSantis’s March 2022 press conference where he signed a bill imposing term limits on school board candidates and making local public school materials subject to state oversight, and an August 2022 press conference where he called for lawsuits against doctors who treat gender dysphoria.
Ron and Casey DeSantis both spoke at Moms for Liberty’s July 2022 “summit” where he called on attendees to focus on school board elections. He later endorsed dozens of school board candidates in 2022 elections and directed over $2 million through his PAC to back them, most of whom were also endorsed and/or financially backed by Moms for Liberty.
Meanwhile, the identities of Moms for Liberty’s major donors and their agendas are still largely unknown to the public. We do, however, know that the group received the 2022 Salvatori Prize from the Heritage Foundation, which came with $25,000 in cash as of 2020 and whose prior recipients include the notorious right-wing propagandist Tucker Carlson. Heritage has numerous secret and public major donors, including the Charles Koch fortune, but that prize was endowed by its namesake Henry Salvatori, who made his fortune in oil exploration and endowed other posts in his name, including one at Chapman University held by Trump-aiding insurrectionist lawyer John Eastman.
Moms for Liberty’s 2022 summit was sponsored by the Leadership Institute, Turning Point USA and the Heritage Foundation, all of which have received significant past funding from or have deep ties to the network of oil billionaire Charles Koch, who has had a public school privatization agenda dating back to at least the 1970s.
MFL’s Florida PAC also received a $50,000 donation — almost its entire 2022 revenue — from Publix heiress and January 6 rally funder, Julie Fancelli. (The grocery chain sought to distance itself from Fancelli after the bloody insurrection on January 6, 2021.)
Another DeSantis Appointee Is Part of Religious Far Right
Leo, a far right lawyer and the architect of the conservative Supreme Court takeover, has personally advised DeSantis on his state court selections. A key cog in Leo’s apparatus, the “Judicial Crisis Network” (JCN), contributed $500,000 directly to DeSantis’s 2022 gubernatorial campaign and another $250,000 to a group that attacked his opponent in the race. DeSantis’s biggest donor for that election was also the Republican Governors Association, a 527 group which also took in $2.5 million from JCN and contributed an immense sum of over $17 million to DeSantis’s campaign from 2021-2022. Chris Jankowski, the CEO of a new pro-DeSantis super PAC “Never Back Down” is also listed as the settlor of Marble Freedom Trust, a massive trust helmed by Leo which received a $1.6 billion donation from Barre Seid in 2021.
Pozo Christie has been on the board of The Catholic Association (TCA), a 501(c)(4) religious right group whose stated mission is to activate Catholics in the public sphere, since as far back as 2013. She has been listed as a director on the tax filings of TCA and its 501(c)(3) arm, The Catholic Association Foundation (TCAF), since 2018. Between 2019 and 2021, Pozo Christie received a total of over $205,000 from TCAF while working just five hours per week as the group’s director, secretary and treasurer.
TCA has funded efforts to deny the right to marry for same-sex couples. Alongside a flotilla of other Leo groups, TCAF has also filed amicus briefs in Supreme Court cases, such as the Dobbs v. Jackson case that overturned Roe (for which Pozo Christie co-authored the group’s brief); a case arguing against employee access to contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act; and a case arguing that religious-tied social service organizations should be allowed to violate nondiscrimination laws.
TCA/TCAF are core groups in Leonard Leo’s dark money network. Leo sat on the board of TCA in 2012 and for TCAF in 2012 and 2013. Both groups also have deep ties to Neil Corkery, a key Leo ally who has held the books for many groups in Leo’s network. Corkery was president of the board at TCAF until 2014 and treasurer of TCA until 2014. While no longer on the board of either group, he has been listed as keeping the books for TCAF in its most recent 990 form. Another longtime Leo ally, Daniel Casey, who helped launch Judicial Crisis Network, held various leadership roles in the TCA/TCAF from 2012 to 2019.
TCAF has also paid nearly $1 million to Leonard Leo’s for-profit business, CRC Advisors, where Corkery is also CFO, between 2016 and 2020. In 2018 and 2019, TCAF paid an additional $240,000 to Leonard Leo personally for consulting.
Since 2016, Leo’s known assets have skyrocketed as funding for the groups he is tied to has also dramatically increased, since he became “volunteer” to Donald Trump on judicial nominations. Leo’s nonprofit groups have routinely paid large sums to Leo’s CRC, as reported by Heidi Przybyla at Politico. Following this bombshell, the watchdog group Campaign for Accountability called for an IRS investigation into seven of Leo’s groups which have paid over $73 million to his for-profit firms from 2016-2021.
Pozo Christie is also an “associate scholar” for the Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI), the 501(c)(3) arm of its better-known 501(c)(4) sister organization, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America (SBA), which is devoted to destroying Roe and legal access to abortion care in the U.S.
CLI is responsible for the poorly conducted studies used in the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. FDA Texas court ruling that has jeopardized access to medication abortion nationwide. At the state level, CLI and SBA have recently filed amicus briefs pushing the Florida Supreme Court to maintain bans on abortion while pushing for even stricter bans. Representatives from CLI testified in favor of Florida’s six-week abortion ban bill, which SBA later thanked allies in the Florida House for passing. SBA staffers reportedly stood alongside DeSantis as he signed the legislation. Some of SBA’s non-election initiatives include lobbying for state abortion bans and against the Equal Rights Amendment.
SBA has taken in at least $5.3 million in funding from groups in the Leo network. SBA’s work centers on electing anti-abortion candidates through their Women Speak Out PAC, whose largest recent funder is not a woman, but in fact GOP mega donor Dick Uihlein. Notably, Uihlein and his wife Elizabeth contributed nearly $2 million to DeSantis’s 2018 and 2022 gubernatorial campaigns.
As Pozo Christie’s groups promote discrimination against LGBTQ Americans, Pozo Christie herself has made disparaging statements about transgender people. She has referred to the movement for trans rights using harmful false stereotypes, describing it as “hag-ridden” and “a back door to pedophilia.” She has cast being transgender as “often just a sexual fetish” and “narcissistic self-exploration.” Despite her extreme anti-abortion views, she has described parents who have children outside of marriage as “shameful.”
Such extremism by members of a board that determines what is taught in K-12 schools statewide should be disqualifying in itself. The dark money ties of these far right actors, who have the power to push the fringe positions of their donors to public school children across the state, should also raise eyebrows. The close ties between such groups and politicians like DeSantis allow super wealthy donors with extreme views to be hidden from the public while having disproportionate influence and the power to peddle unpopular and harmful policies that suit the views of rich extremists.
While DeSantis may want to export his “culture war” attacks in a bid to “Make America Florida,” voters don’t appear to be falling for the coordinated right-wing attacks on reproductive rights or our local schools, at least according to the most recent election results.
Note: True North Research Executive Director Lisa Graves and Senior Researcher Evan Vorpahl contributed to this report.
It takes longer to read this sentence than it does to support our work.
We don’t have much time left to raise the $15,000 needed to meet Truthout‘s basic publishing costs this month. Will you take a few seconds to donate and give us a much-needed boost?
We know you are deeply committed to the issues that matter, and you count on us to bring you trustworthy reporting and comprehensive analysis on the real issues facing our country and the world. And as a nonprofit newsroom supported by reader donations, we’re counting on you too. If you believe in the importance of an independent, free media, please make a tax-deductible donation today!